The National Catholic Review
You Can Count on Me

Road maps provide a wonderful metaphor for life. The thick double line of the Interstate marks the quickest, most direct route to our destination, but a nearly infinite number of blue and red side roads offer unimagined possibilities. By choosing the safe, direct route, we miss a great many of life’s opportunities: the scenery, the people, the leisure. By wandering off the sensible, well-traveled superhighways, we surrender the comforting security of familiar diners, predictable motels and legible green and white signs telling us exactly where we are and where we are headed. Perhaps we have no particular destination in mind and hope that by meandering through new towns and new landscapes we can recapture that sense of adventure that adulthood has taken from us. We study our options carefully, but in the end we know that no matter how precise our reckonings, surprises may await us on our journey: a blizzard, a detour, an accident. One option does not remain open. Each of us must undertake that journey through life; none of us has the luxury of an eternal present.

You Can Count on Me invites us to examine the road maps of two quite unexceptional people, and through them perhaps gain some understanding of our own journey. Not many films in this age of the shopping-mall blockbusters encourage that kind of adult reflection. Like life itself, the script by the director, Kenneth Lonergan, provides moments of comedy and tragedy, hope and desperation, fidelity and betrayal in startling combinations. The film offers no movie heroes and villains. These are just ordinary people trying to get on with their lives. The film resists judging them. These characters are old enough to have covered many miles, courageous enough to admit their wrong turns and young enough to have a long journey still ahead of them. Will they lose their way again? Most probably they will, just as each of us does on occasion.

Appropriately, the film begins on a country road. As they drive along at night, a couple wonders about braces for their daughter’s teeth. In a brilliant compression of time, characteristic of Lonergan’s script, the action vaults ahead from the sudden appearance of a truck on the road to a shaken state trooper trying to inform the sitter rather than the recently orphaned children, to a brother and sister sitting together at the funeral. Standing between two caskets, a woman in a clerical collar tries to offer words of comfort in her eulogy, but the soundtrack provides no words, only the mournful sound of a choir. Clearly, the homily makes no sense to the bereaved children. With no outward sign of emotion, they clasp each other’s hands.

Years and miles have passed. Terry (Mark Ruffalo) has wandered the country from Alaska to Florida, where he spent several months in jail after a fight in a bar. Now in his mid-20’s, he shares a shabby apartment in Worcester, Mass., with his girlfriend, a singularly disagreeable young woman. For reasons only hinted at in their sharp exchange, they urgently need more money than he can provide at present. Terry agrees to return by bus to his hometown to try to get it from his sister.

Samantha (Laura Linney), or Sammy as she is known, seems to have done quite well for herself. While Terry could never settle into anything, Sammy has scarcely budged from their birthplace, Scottsville, N.Y. Her job as chief loan officer of the town bank allows her to maintain the family home, drive a red S.U.V. and take care of her 8-year-old son, Rudy. Her ex-husband has vanished. With good spirits and hard work, she balances the responsibilities of a single mother with obvious success.

Despite their very different paths through life, Sammy beams with delight when she learns Terry is coming to visit her. He arrives by bus, unshaved and wearing a frayed, dirty looking T-shirt, jeans and sneakers. He carries a knapsack, which includes his stash of pot. Since he is a day late, Sammy does not meet him at the bus stop, but this gives him the opportunity to smoke his way into the courage to complete his errand. When they meet, Sammy, dressed in her smart silk suit, is too happy to notice his appearance, and she will not listen to his excuses for missing his bus the day before.

So different are they that brother and sister might have come from different galaxies. Terry is a boy hiding in a man’s body. He is irresponsible and irrepressible, but absolutely charming. With his teenager’s stammer, goofy grin and tousled black hair, it becomes clear why Sammy is crazy about him. She in turn is the model of stability, but perhaps a trifle dull, like their good old, dependable town. Ordinarily, this contrast in personalities would lead to conflict, and it does at times, but their love overcomes their differences. They seem to supply what is lacking in the other’s life. They open up new highways for each other.

Terry grows fond of Sammy’s son Rudy (Rory Culkin) and shows signs of becoming the father figure that Rudy has never had. Sammy gradually shows traces of that spirit of adventure, even recklessness, that she once had but covered over when she became a small-town super-mom. Do they change? Not really. Even in staid, predictable Scottsville, life constantly redefines settled categories. For the rest of their lives, Sammy and Terry will wrestle with the complexities of their relationship and their own personalities.

The minor characters intensify these ambiguities. Sammy believes that religion will help Terry settle down. She brings the parish priest, played by Kenneth Lonergan himself, home to talk with him, but Terry wants none of it. In a later meeting, Sammy asks him for help in sorting out her own moral life, not Terry’s. In both cases, the priest is shrewd enough not to offer pious bromides, but is his reluctance to offer officially prescribed solutions really a sign of his respect for their individuality, of his incompetence or of his own lack of faith? Lonergan refuses to offer simplistic answers as either priest-actor or as the writer-director of the film.

Brian (Matthew Broderick), Sammy’s new bank manager, clearly wants to move on to a bigger branch in a larger town by impressing the home office with his efficiency. His maddening compulsion to enforce every petty regulation in the book might seem a perfect fit with Sammy’s very professional management style, but once he shows a stupefying (and illegal) insensitivity to her family needs, he sets loose a volcano of long repressed emotion that neither of them can understand or control. Sammy is not afraid to fight back with any weapon in her underground arsenal. Neither antagonist is quite as simple as their cool office demeanor might suggest.

You Can Count on Me maintains this balance of opposites with extraordinary consistency. The musical score, arranged by Lesley Barber, shifts easily back and forth between the country-Western songs of small-town America and the solo baroque cello that underlines the depth and intricacy of their lives. The cinematography, by Stephen Kazmierski, cuts away from the cramped interiors of the family homestead and the narrow main street to breathtaking shots of the forests and mountains of the Adirondack region.

Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo have created such wonderfully rich characters that their beautifully written final dialogue simply sparkles on the screen. Seated quietly on a park bench in the morning sunlight, they calmly talk about the rage, frustration, disappointment and love each has experienced with the other. They make promises, but they know from history that even their most earnest promises are likely to be broken. With or without the help of their parish priest, they know their world is touched by human sinfulness, but it is the best world they have at the moment. It’s a truly touching moment.

Kenneth Lonergan had the creativity and courage to explore questions of love and fidelity through the complex relationship of a brother and sister rather than through infatuated adolescents or a struggling married couple. Taking romance out of the equation forces us to dig more deeply into their feelings and ours. That is a fairly good description of an adult movie. This is a refreshing shower in a very dry movie season.

At the end, there is no end. Sammy and Terry simply move on. They take out their roadmaps once more to see where they have been and where they might be headed, but they’re not altogether sure that they will get there. Not fare well, but fare forward, voyagers!

Richard A. Blake, S.J., is professor of fine arts and co-director of the Film Studies Program at Boston College.

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